Comedian Maeve Higgins has been steadily building a varied and global career for the last 15 years. As her first leading film role hits the big screens, longtime fan Sophie White meets the Cobh native to talk comedy, climate change, and collaborating with Mary Robinson.
Maeve Higgins has always been a person who’s defied categorisation. When she first hit our TV screens in 2005 on RTÉ’s Naked Camera and later with her own show with sister Lilly in 2007, the sorely-missed Fancy Vittles, extracting the real Maeve Higgins from her often gauche, always hilarious characters was difficult.
As a longtime fan – my friend and I used to do dramatic readings of her funny and often deliciously absurd Irish Times column over Saturday breakfast – I’m more than a little intimidated to meet Higgins on her recent trip to Dublin to promote her first leading role, in the comedy-horror Extra Ordinary.
In a rather meta move, I slip reflexively into the kind of awkward encounter she initially became famous for on her early shows – at some random juncture in our chat, I find myself treating her to my magpie impression. I assure you there was some context to this, but probably not quite enough.
Dedication and precision
Since beginning stand-up in the mid-noughties, Higgins has, despite her apparently unassuming persona on stage, pursued her career with incredible dedication and precision, resulting in arguably the most modest stratospheric rise in recent Irish history.
One minute, Higgins was a darling of Irish comedy, then blink and she was writing agenda-setting commentary in The New York Times and producing work that straddles comedy, politics and activism on a global stage. She cropped up on Amy Schumer’s Inside Amy Schumer and is now starring alongside The Last Man on Earth creator and star Will Forte in Extra Ordinary – a delightfully idiosyncratic film with plenty of heart, gore and laughs (as ya do!) from Irish writer/director team Enda Loughman and Mike Ahern.
"I’d do whatever Mary Robinson wanted because when I was eight, she was the President! And she’s brilliant, like."
She’s recently shared hosting duties on Mothers of Invention with Mary Robinson, a podcast that unpacks the climate change crisis with a distinctly feminist remit of elevating the women who are at the forefront of this battle.
“The way I always felt about climate chaos was ‘I’m a bit frozen,’” says Higgins, always ready to say what we’re all feeling. “I’m a bit paralysed with fear. I know it’s real, I know it’s about to get much worse, but I don’t know what to do about it. So, when I heard that Mary Robinson needed a co-host – obviously, I’d do whatever Mary Robinson wanted because when I was eight, she was the President! And she’s brilliant, like.
“Also, doing the climate podcast intersects a lot with the other areas that I’m interested in,” she continues. “Immigration, migration – with social justice issues, a lot of them really go back to climate.”
On the subject of immigration, she’s provided a timely and troubling insight into the immigration experience in Trump’s America with her podcast Maeve in America and essay collection of the same name.
“I love podcasting because it is such an immediate and direct medium,” she says. “Anyone can listen and it’s free and conversational. I was thinking, ‘What do I care enough about to make a podcast on it?’ And when I moved to America myself and became an immigrant, I got really interested in other immigrants’ stories.
“I think a lot of journalism is just about learning. Finding something you’re curious about and asking, ‘Why is it like that?’"
“I started working on that in 2015, and then immigration became the big issue of the 2016 presidential election. Immigration has always been politicised in America, but it got much more so because Trump’s campaign was so racist and anti-immigration. So my own work just kind of followed that trend.”
Since then, Maeve’s writing has been very much focused on these issues. “I am an immigrant, so I can speak to that experience. And I’m a white immigrant, so I can use that as a jumping-off point and use that as a contrast to the experience of black and brown immigrants. It’s invaluable.”
Writing for the New York Times
I find Higgins quite no-nonsense when it comes to talking about her role as contributor to what is, arguably, the paper of note in America. She certainly doesn’t seem stricken by angst or imposter syndrome in the slightest. While I’m slightly hysterical at the mere thought of that pressure, Higgins seems to be reasonably rational about it.
“With the Times and the other outlets that I write for, everything is fact-checked. I have to research it very deeply. So I kind of trust the process there. I trusted that I could do the research and ask the questions and follow my own curiosity. It’s very helpful that I am writing for such reputable publications because some of the stuff is very complicated, like the immigration system and the laws are very complex so you have to get it right.”
Perhaps what has worked so well for Higgins on stages in America to Australia and everywhere in between is her willingness to be vulnerable. Her naïve comedic creations – a hilarious awkward female parking ticket enforcer looking for a date for a wedding, a woman in a travel agents wondering if the groom is a part of the honeymoon package they offer – all speak to our innate insecurity.
Whether in comedy or writing, she is always willing to be open and questioning, which shouldn’t be but is refreshing in a world where even the people in power can’t or won’t admit to mistakes and gaps in their own knowledge.
“I think a lot of journalism is just about learning,” says Maeve. “Finding something you’re curious about and asking, ‘Why is it like that?’ You can’t go wrong with that.”
From Ireland to the US
America clearly provided myriad new opportunities when Higgins moved there in 2014, many of which she created herself. When she was still new to the city, she and investigative journalist Jon Ronson created a monthly storytelling night called I’m New Here – Can You Show Me Around?.
“I didn’t know many people, but I think that worked out well because I got to decide what did I want to do and where did I want my voice to be. It was kind of good that I could start again in a new place. It wasn’t reinvention, but there was a whole load of options there that I didn’t have in Ireland.”
“I don’t do activism...”
“I love staying in touch with everyone at home, and I still feel very connected to Ireland. I feel a weird guilt sometimes that I’m not here. I feel so proud of Ireland because living in America in this moment is really freaky and I see Ireland getting more progressive, addressing things like direct provision and homelessness. It’s going the opposite where I live at the moment.
“We just did this conference about reproductive rights in Ireland and America with American academics, and Irish women came over to talk about how they fought for reproductive freedom while that same freedom is being stripped away in the States.”
I mention the word activism a couple of times, and Higgins eventually sets me right. “I don’t do activism,” she explains laughing.
So what’s next, I wonder. Higgins is characteristically laid-back. “I’ll be writing more, and I don’t know what I’ll finish out the year with. I’m writing about the immigration courts at the moment. Comedy-wise, I don’t know what I’m doing. And I’m not being like, ‘I’d love to tell you, but it’s under wraps.’ Like, I literally don’t know what I’m doing. I have a gig this week when I go back and then I don’t know!”
It’s hard to believe that Higgins hasn’t masterminded some grand plan thus far. Her success in America isn’t really comparable to any other Irish performers. She’s carved a unique niche and placed her voice at the centre of one of the most volatile debates of the moment in America.
While her work in this area alone would be a career focus for many, one gets the impression that Higgins is in no rush to tie herself to one subject, medium or even tone. With immigration, she took a complicated, difficult and painful topic and managed to make it personal, human and funny. She exists in a space that feels very new and unique.
Comedy has always been political, but often concerned with the easy stuff – lampooning disastrous political fumbles or parodying political figures. Comedy rarely does earnest. I suspect comedy is a bit scared of earnest, but Higgins is pushing comedy out of its comfort zone.
And I think she may well be an activist too, if perhaps an accidental one.
Extra Ordinary is out now.
Photo: Julia Dunin
Read more: 'Meeting Brendan Grace was like meeting Harry Styles'
Read more: How I spend my working day – Irish PR Hannah Saunders
Read more: These 6 female-led projects have been awarded the €1.8 million Women of Ireland Fund